“Smile, offer to make tea and, before you leave for the day, always ask if there’s any more you can do.” This was my father’s advice before I started my first job at 16 and, in fairness to him, it stood me in very good stead. We all like working with someone who’s friendly and brings us hot beverages; if they’re happy to stay late on a busy day, that’s a bonus. Nearly 20 years after he gave me that advice, it’s still the attitude I bring with me to a new job – show up, be smiley and make sure everyone’s happy with you. But, in her speech at the The Hollywood Reporter’s 2016 Women In Entertainment breakfast, Tina Fey gave us all the most powerful argument for shutting down the people-pleasing and taking ownership over our own careers.
In it, she gently mocks some of Hollywood’s male producers for showing up to the breakfast, but not quite showing up for women the rest of the time. She celebrates some of the serious power-women in Hollywood – those who have made it, even though they “witnessed some behaviour that the young people today would call ‘triggering’”. And, finally, she talks about what it feels like to have real power, to be in a place where people return your phonecalls and listen to what you have to say. The most important part of this power, she says, is the ability to say no.
“Whether it’s writing a pilot for a bad actor or the butter scene in Last Tango In Paris or telling Roger Ailes to put his hamburger meat back in the freezer, feeling like you can say no without any negative repercussions is an important kind of power. And it’s one that we can help each other have — by believing and supporting each other.”
Ironically, for someone who, in my last job had a reputation for being pretty tough, I’m finding it hard to remember any times when I used ‘No’ as a full sentence
I’ve listened to that part at least 10 times now and, each time, I do I try to think back to the times I’ve said no in my career. Ironically, for someone who, in my last job, had a reputation for being pretty tough, I’m finding it hard to remember any times when I used “No” as a full sentence. I can remember lots of occasions where I argued with my peers (and sometimes my boss) over the direction we should take. I know that I certainly used the phrase, “That’s a really interesting idea, but for now I’m not sure it’s going to work,” several times. And there have definitely been times where I nodded politely and then simply did something else. But the word “No”? I can’t remember saying it that often.
Even now, I don’t like saying it. I’ll ignore emails and hope people will just sort of go away. I’ll offer to find other people who can help instead. Or, worst of all, I’ll say yes and then spend time hiding under my duvet, panicking about how I’m going to get it all done. Being a freelancer hasn’t helped this tendency – you say yes to everything in case the money dries up and you end up living back at home with your parents while everyone around you says, “She used to be successful; so sad what happened.”
But it’s not just people-pleasing that causes this behaviour. If we’re all honest, there’s a darker, more depressing reason for it and Fey hits on it when she talks about Last Tango In Paris. As women, we’ve spent thousands and thousands of years saying yes because we feared what would happen if we didn’t. That behaviour has been bred into us as a way to avoid violence, but it’s increasingly leading us into situations which are dangerous for us and the women around us. Fey standing on stage and saying that she would be using her power to say no, not just for herself but for all the women in Hollywood, was a rallying cry to all of us to reclaim power over our own careers.
I’m not saying we all have to start crossing our arms, rolling our eyes at our boss and refusing to do anything in our job description, but a big part of stepping up in your career is knowing your value and not working below it. That means saying no to making tea or booking meeting rooms. It means shutting down ideas you know won’t work. And it means standing up for the women around you. It means saying no to banter that is really just sexual harassment, and to reporting all levels of that behaviour. That takes courage. But if Tina Fey can stand on a stage and lampoon some of the most powerful people in her industry, then maybe we can all borrow a little bit of her bravery. After all, we’re adults now, so we don’t need approval – we need respect.